Missing from the annals of African-American history and the history of Nazi Germany are the documented stories and struggles of African Americans, straight and "queer." Valaida Snow, captured in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen, Denmark, and interned in a concentration camp for nearly two years, is one such story.
Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., Valaida Snow came from a family of musicians and was famous for playing the trumpet. Named "Little Louis" after Louis Armstrong ( who called her the world's second best jazz trumpet player, besides himself, of course ) Snow played concerts throughout the United States, Europe and China. On a return trip to Denmark after headlining at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Snow, the conductor of an all-women's band, was arrested for allegedly possessing drugs and sent to an Axis internment camp for alien nationals in Wester-Faengle.
While in pre-Hitler Germany all-female orchestras were de rigeur in many avant-garde entertainment clubs, these homosocial all-women's bands created tremendous outrage during Hitler's regime. Snow was sent to a concentration camp not only because she was Black and in the wrong place at the wrong time, but also because of her "friendships" with German women musicians, implying lesbianism.
Although laws against lesbianism had not been codified, and lesbians were not criminalized for their sexual orientations as gay men were, German women were nonetheless viewed as threats to the Nazi state and were fair game during SS raids on lesbian bars, sentenced by the Gestapo, sent to concentration camps and branded with black triangles. As a matter of fact, any German woman, lesbian, prostitute or heterosexual, not upholding her primary gender role"to be a mother of as many Aryan babies as possible"was deemed antisocial and hostile to the German state.
Because Nazis could not discern between the sexual affection and social friendship between straight and lesbian women, over time they dismissed lesbianism as a state and social problem, as long as both straight and lesbian women carried out the state's mandate to procreate.
Nazi Germany's extermination plan of gay men is a classic example of how politics informed their science. Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code differentiated between the types of persecution non-German gay men received from German gay men because of a quasi-scientific and racist ideology of racial purity. "The polices of persecution carried out toward non-German homosexuals in the occupied territories differed significantly from those directed against Germans gays," wrote Richard Plant in The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals. "The Aryan race was to be freed of contagion; the demise of degenerate subjects peoples was to be hastened."
Hans J. Massaquoia former Ebony Magazine editor,and the son of an African diplomat and white German motherin his memoir, Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany, depicts a life of privilege until his father returned to his native Liberia. Like all non-Aryans, Massaquoi faced constant dehumanization and the threat of death by Gestapo executioners. "Racist in Nazi Germany did their dirty work openly and brazenly with the full protection, cooperation, and encouragement of the government, which had declared the pollution of Aryan blood with 'inferior' non-Aryan blood the nation's cardinal sin," he wrote. Consequently, the Gestapo rounded up and forcibly sterilized and subjected many non-Aryans to medical experiments, while other just simply mysteriously disappeared.
There was no systematic program for elimination of people of African descent in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 in Nazi Germany because their number were few, but their abuses in German-occupied territories, like the one in which Snow was captured, were great and far-reaching.
After 18 months of imprisonment, Snow was one of the more fortunate Blacks to make it out of Nazi Germany, released as an exchange prisoner. She was, however, both psychologically and physically scarred from the ordeal and never fully recovered. Snow attempted to return to performing but her spark, tragically, was gone.
'Out at CHM' looks at queer Latinos
by Yasmin Nair
The Chicago History Museum's Out at CHM series hosted its first Latina/o event March 4. Titled "Queer Latinos: Art and Change," the program showcased the work of two researchers, Lourdes Torres and Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes who presented on their Chicago-based work in the Latino/a community. They were introduced by Ramon Rivera-Servera, an assistant professor in the department of performance studies at Northwestern University.
Torres is a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies and the director of the Center for Latino Research at DePaul University, and a board member of Amigas Latinas, a local organization for Latina lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning women. Torres' presentation was on Amigas and on its predecessor group, LLENA. She said that the impetus behind her work was to "document the efforts of Latina lesbians to define their identity in public spaces" as they worked to "negotiate national and ethnic identities and the diverse political histories" of members.
LLENA began in 1988 and lasted till 1992. Chicago, in 1980, was not a friendly space for Latina lesbians, who saw a lack of public spaces. In November 1988, more than 30 such lesbians gathered for a meeting to discuss ways to remedy the situation, and this gave birth to Llena. The name was an acronym for "Latina lesbians en nuestro ambiente" or "Latina lesbians in our space." "Llena" in Spanish also means "full." According to one member, LLENA was to convey the sense that the women felt "perfect in our own space [ with ] a sense of completeness." The group met every other Friday at Horizons, now Howard Brown Health Center.
Llena consisted of a mixture of all social classes, including professors and undocumented women, and the ages ranged from their 20s to their 60s. The bilingual meetings were described as chaotic and intense, and lasted as long as four hours. According to members, they always felt unwelcome at Horizons, where the staff were mostly white gay men who made them feel out of place. They were not allowed in if they came early and had to stand waiting outside in the cold. Eventually, José Lopez, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, offered them that space and Llena moved its meetings there.
The group began putting out a bilingual newsletter, Lesbiana, in 1990. Torres said that its politics fit with the general trend towards a Third World feminist movement. According to Torres, LLENA's politics were coalitional and intersectional; one of its main co-sponsored events was the immensely popular International Women's Day Dance. The group eventually disbanded in 1992, but by then it had made its mark in establishing the need and the hunger for a public space for Latina lesbians, paving the way for Amigas.
By the 1990s, Chicago was a more welcoming place for Latinas and there was a proliferation of organizations and events for women of color. These included Affinity ( for African-American lesbians ) and the WACT ( Women of All Colors Together ) potlucks. Evette Cardona was among the co-founders of the latter, and she would become one of the co-founders of Amigas Latinas in 1995.
Torres pointed out that Amigas, which continues to this day, is unique for being one of the few that has sustained itself for more than a decade where most do not survive beyond two years. The group is currently a non-profit with over 300 members. Among the reasons for its success is that Amigas has become a leading educator and advocate for Latina lesbian issues and is explicit about the fact that Latinas are not a monolithic group; it addresses the needs of youth, older women and families. In that it echoes the words of a LLENA newsletter: "We must work towards an inclusive community as well as a pluralistic feminism."
La Fountain-Stokes, an associate professor of Latina/o studies, American Culture and Spanish at the University of Michigan, spoke about five queer Latina/o artists and writers based in Chicago: writer Achy Obejas, poet Rane Arroyo, director Rose Troche, Teatro Luna co-founder Coya Paz and performance artist Faust Ferno's, of Feast of Fun. La Fountain-Stokes presented biographical sketches all five, showing how each recorded and negotiated complex issues of self and cultural identification as Latina/o in a city that is multiethnic and often strewn with tensions around race and ethnicity. Troche is most famous for her 1994 breakout hit film Go Fish, about a multiethnic group of lesbians living in the then-not-yet-completely gentrified Wicker Park. According to La Fountain-Stokes, Troche made a film that cannot be easily read as Latina unless viewers notice subtle references to her Puerto Rican heritage. He pointed out that most biographies and media pieces on the filmmaker downplay her ethnic identity. Quoting the scholar Lisa Henderson, he said that the film instead portrays a "modest lesbian utopia."
The question-and-answer session evoked praise and additional bits of ongoing Chicago Latina/o history. Cardona added that ALMA ( the Association of Latino Men for Action ) had been instrumental in helping to form Amigas. She also pointed to the existence of contemporary Latina/o groups like Dulce Palabras, a queer spoken-word ensemble.